This article features in The Guardian / Education / Teacher Network Blog.
The reason I write ‘this post’ is to share my experiences with other colleagues. It is certainly not an exemplary model of any leadership interview, just my story. In the short amount of time I have been working in school leadership, the application and interview process still remains an unknown quantity for many of us. At each of the stages we climb higher, we relish the challenge but would also acknowledge that, for the vast majority, we are stepping into the unknown.
In the past few years, I have experienced a total of four leadership interviews. Three of these have been for assistant headteacher positions and the other, a deputy headteacher role. This blog goes into detail about three of the interviews.
I would describe myself as a vocational practitioner, someone who prefers coursework, rather than an examination. Of course I can do both but, given a preference, I wish there were interview processes that existed, to support teachers like myself who could prove their worth over a performance period.
(Director of Specialisms; CPD & ICT) over one day:
Note, this interview was conducted during the NUT strike over pay in April 2008. On the day of interview, you can imagine, there were virtually zero students or staff present in the school.
The details of the process include a lengthy interview, a student-panel interview which I always enjoy, and a role-play with (simulated) middle-leaders!
Finally, a presentation was also part of the process, focusing on a random topic that always suits the school development plan and is (I guess) apparently supposed to showcase your leadership skills in a pokey-room, with three to four observant colleagues using a bland PowerPoint presentation… not my forte.
At the end of the day I was called back into meet the panel first (which is always a good sign) and offered the role before leaving room. Despite what has happened to me as a result of this particular role at this school, a note to all: do not accept any post on the spot without reflection or a good look around the school. I made the mistake of not visiting beforehand and being in a very unique position at interview, during a strike day. Take the drive home, walk or call a friend, colleague or a partner and… reflect. If the school offer you the position, accept in principle, but don’t think anyone would be offended if you said “you need to just discuss the outcome with your partner before confirming”.
So following voluntary redundancy from the school mentioned above the following interviews were conducted while I was in a position of redundancy at home. See my blog on coping with redundancy to hear more about this time.
(Key Stage 3 Pastoral) over two days:
Day one: The day started off as it should, with a positive school assembly and a tour led by a group of students. The feel-good factor was tingling my skin and I started to believe I would be part of the furniture in no time.
An in-tray exercise soon made sure these feelings ebbed away and I switched my brain on as we were left alone in a quiet library. The task comprised of a letter to be hand-written as a reply to an upset parent; a data analysis exercise and finally five possible scenarios that you “may encounter” before 9am. We had to rank and support our decisions using the 45 minutes available to complete all of the tasks.
A short chit-chat break with middle-leaders hindered any chance of enjoying a coffee or a micro-second to pull out any biscuit crumbs from my teeth. A series of meetings (as a group) with the other candidates was next on the agenda.
For the first time ever in my career, there was NO lesson to teach. Yes, you did read that sentence correctly. This was fantastic in terms of interview preparation as only “reading-up” was required which allowed you to have some sort of life before the event; but no lesson? What’s that all about?!
At the end of day one, there were seven of us waiting after school. The choice was ours to stay and so was any feedback that was offered to us. We each sounded each other out – which would have been a great moment on Big Brother – and to no surprise, we all decided to stay while the panel deliberated… Of the four shortlisted, my name was the last to be read. We were escorted through reception to the headteacher’s office. “All of you could do the role, so it is a matter of you selling yourselves to us”, he said.
We were given a small slip of paper with a presentation topic and a time to attend a one-hour interview in the morning. I was content.
Day two: After working until the late hours (a no-no) the night before, I waltzed in at 11am, adorned with a new coloured tie for my allocated interview slot. I took the chance to take a private walk around the school and ask a few more detailed questions to key members of staff I felt I would be working closely with. This did help me, but was also a vital reference point during the interview.
The presentation was supposed to be short and a chance to sell my leadership skills. After all, they were deciding if I would fit into their current team. I therefore set about who I was and what leadership qualities I could bring to the school. The interview was relaxed, challenging and I remember making most of the panel smile.
Feedback: As I was the last candidate of the day, it was suggested that I stay behind to hear my fate… Although I am sceptical about accepting positions there and then, my situation at the time left me with no choice. After 30 minutes which soon turned into an hour, I was called back from the staffroom to hear my fate. “We would like to offer you a role, (short pause) but not for this position.”
“Okay” I replied and asked the headteacher to repeat himself and clarify the crux of his words. Another candidate was being offered the position, but they recognised qualities in me, so they had deliberated and created an additional role. Was this a good thing? A compliment? Was is what I needed? All sorts of questions whizzed through my head. I retreated home to reflect and returned two days later to discuss the details of this role, only to hear that the school could not afford me! The contract had changed from one year to one term consultancy and I left feeling even more bewildered at the process.
(Teaching and Learning) over two days:
Without doubt, this period was the most intense two days I have ever experienced at interview and exemplifies that the process can vary from school to school based on the personality and the needs of the school. At Headteacher level, I have heard that the process can last for three and a half days…
Day one: For this interview the day began with a staff briefing in the staffroom. Minutes, messages, disgruntled faces (in parts), pigeon holes and worn out cushioned chairs are the staple diet of most staffrooms, but not this place. There were no minutes, and it only lasted three minutes… so I liked the place already.
What followed was a very good tour. What I mean by this, is that it felt as if there were no stones left unturned and this is very important point to make. It shows the real character of the school and is just how it should be if schools are to appoint the “right” candidate. I liked the school even more…
All the candidates were teaching a lesson and then had to create the all-singing, all-dancing performance of a lifetime in a stranger’s classroom. What frustrated me about this stage, is that each candidate taught a different subject, to a different student ability and each in a different classroom environment.
Following our own lesson, we were asked to observe two other staff-members’ lesson and then feedback to them individually under close observation. After this had knocked the wind out of your sails, the “surprise” element of the day (and all interesting schools love surprises) was a mini-speed-dating version of Q and A meetings with middle leaders.
I picked up my box of tricks and by 5pm I was home. Oh, and there is little time to relax and switch off, at 6pm I received “the phonecall”. Regardless of the good news, it was all very efficient.
Day 2: The anticipated phonecall that came the night before provided us with our brief for the day. A presentation topic related to the school’s needs and also linked to the role of the successful post-holder. Plus an additional cliffhanger, a message to say we would be teaching another lesson, but with only one-hour’s notice to plan on the day. It felt like being a supply teacher or being given a cover lesson all over again! It would be to another teacher’s scheme of work (how frustrating!) and to a different key stage for a topic provided to us.
Despite both my lessons being successfully delivered in unfamiliar circumstances, the surprise element of the day was yet to come. The remaining four candidates were to observe each other’s lessons and then provide lesson feedback. This concept drummed up all sorts of thoughts into my mind and certainly raised the stakes for the position advertised. It was without doubt, a challenging, exciting and daunting prospect to complete after establishing minor relationships with the other candidates.
Now I needed to provide a judgement and deliver this good or bad news to someone that – to them – was being delivered by their competition. It was a new experience.
Again, my pet-hate, a presentation to be delivered in five, short minutes that was supposed to capture the vision of the school through my leadership. As swiftly as I entered the room, I smiled and fumbled my belongings together, logged off the PC and retreated to the holding room.
Having made it to the final four, the panel were to deliberate over lunch and select candidates for the final interview.
Feedback: “Congratulations Ross, we’d like to offer you the job. Please relax…” Again, the candidates I had come to know, were whisked off behind the scenes (I have been there) and I spent the next thirty minutes relaxing and revising for a final interview, for a job I had been offered.
The interview was penetrating and I questioned the reasoning for the strength of interrogation after being offered the post. Perhaps I misheard the panel? Maybe I had been congratulated for being the only candidate shortlisted to the penultimate stage?
Exhausted and believe it or not, grateful for the CPD, I managed to get home by 5pm. Thank goodness I had not spoken to my wife at 3pm to whisper the good news! I was dismissed with “we will call you tomorrow morning” but no sooner had I walked in the door, my phone rang and I recognised the number immediately. It was a “no”…
One thing I know is that you cannot expect the interview process (for any job) to be similar as you may have experienced in your last interview, no matter how long that was ago. If you are successful for any teaching post, believe me, you have done very well.
I can’t help but wonder is it not time for a change? It may not be financially viable, but could placements be more suitable between schools, similar to leadership programmes?